Nature Connection: Springing Into Spring

By: Mary Richmond

A robin’s song is a sure sign of spring. MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION


It’s here, finally, that most wonderful time of year when the weather fluctuates between winter and summer, often in the same day. If you love the cold and damp, Cape Cod springs are for you. Throw in an occasional migratory bird sighting, fields of dandelions, and peeping spring peepers and you may become ecstatic.

Seriously, though, springs on Cape Cod are predictably unpredictable, often cold and wet, and often more like winter than winter itself, especially this last winter which was sort of deficient in the actual winter department. And yes, I used the word winter a lot since winter herself did not.

We celebrate every sign of spring enthusiastically in spite of all that. We note the arrivals of the ospreys and piping plovers, the sprouts of new plants on our walks in the woods, the fish that return to our shores in droves, the whales that frolic in the bay, and the sunny days spent barefoot on the beach on warm afternoons. We listen for the quacks of wood frogs and the songs of robins and red-winged blackbirds.

Mostly spring brings us a good dose of hope. We hope the gardens will bloom, the bees will buzz, the fish will jump, and the weather will be good enough on at least a few days for us to enjoy all the best this wonderful place has to offer before the summer crowds swoop in.

Much of our spring is far more subtle than spring in other areas, even in the rest of Massachusetts. Just as our ocean keeps our falls warmer longer than much of the state, it also keeps us cold longer in the spring. Think of it as a giant hot water bottle or ice pack. It takes a while to cool down and a while to warm up. This keeps our summers pretty reasonable most of the time, so when it comes to cool springs, we just have to grin and bear it, as they say.

The ocean determines our spring in other ways as well. The herring and alewives will begin to arrive in April, leaving the ocean to spawn in the freshwater ponds and lakes they themselves were hatched in. This massive migration of millions of fish has been a symbol of spring for as many years as humans have passed stories down through generations. Their arrival meant a time of plenty after months of deprivation if not near starvation.

Fish were consumed soon after they were caught, but many were smoked and dried for future use. Fish heads and skeletons were buried along with seeds as natural fertilizer by the Indigenous Peoples. Today huge factory ships catch huge quantities of fish offshore, which is a concern for their continued existence.

Humans aren’t the only species who enjoy and even count on the arrival of herring each spring. Larger fish, dolphins, whales, sharks, and many kinds of seabirds also feed on these fish, which used to be so thick coming into the rivers and streams they say you could almost walk across their backs. Gulls, herons, egrets, ospreys, eagles, and even mammals such as otters and raccoons also depend on this migration. All summer long various birds, animals and fish feed on the tiny baby fish as they head back to the ocean.

Some might wonder what difference it would make if a small fish was to become extinct or become so rare that the annual migrations no longer had any impact. They might say hey, I don’t eat them, so who cares? Well, if you like striped bass, tuna, bluefish, or many other larger fish on your table, you might care. Maybe you’d miss the birds you’ve become accustomed to seeing each year or the animals that you see on your walks. Herring may seem small and insignificant but their impact on the food chain and life cycles here and elsewhere is very significant.

Each spring I find myself watching the thousands of fish swarming upstream and wonder if we are smart enough to ensure our great grandchildren and their great grandchildren will share the wonder of this yearly cycle. 

I can hope they do, of course, and spring is all about hope. Each spiky sprout of skunk cabbage, each leathery leaf of mayflower, each elegant leaf of a pink lady’s slipper is a sign of hope, I think. They intend to grow and bloom, set seed, and make way for another generation, all in a season. 

Baby birds and animals are also signs of hope. So are caterpillars and grubs, dragonfly nymphs and tiny worms. All hope to survive, to grow, to procreate, to continue through another generation.

As I read the morning papers or watch the evening news, I am very aware of the need for hope. It is as important, I think, as water, food, and shelter. Without it we wither and die, as individuals and as a society.

Spring shows up just when the doldrums of winter seem interminable, even unbearable to some. She brings us hope in the first flowers, the song sparrows that sing even in the rain, the birds that arrive exhausted but eager after almost unimaginable flights across continents and oceans. 

If you need a little extra push this spring, just take a walk in the woods or around a pond. Visit a meadow or salt marsh. Hang out for a bit and watch and listen. Spring is happening everywhere. So is hope. Let’s welcome both with open arms and willing hearts.